There is lots and lots of poetry in the Bible. For many Christians Bible poetry can be a bit of a puzzle. It may be the only poetry you read, so you’re probably not even used to poems in normal life! How then do you read Bible poetry? Do you read it differently from Bible prose?
Although most of the prophetic books are written in poetry, as well as most of Job and Proverbs, I am going to focus on the Psalms. As you read this though, it’s worth bearing in mind a few other really important songs in the Old Testament. These are the song the Israelites sang by the Red Sea (Ex. 15:1-18); the song of Moses at the end of his life (Deut. 32:1-43); the song of Deborah and Barak (Judges 5:1-31); and the prayer of Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1-10). It’s also good to remember that there are some very important songs in the New Testament, notably in Luke 1 and 2 and again in the book of Revelation, but in this article we will focus mainly on the Psalms.
Reading Bible poetry
I want to make three general comments about reading Bible poetry and then focus on how we read the Psalms as believers in Christ.
Hebrew poetry works by parallel lines
Hebrew poetry doesn’t usually have a steady metre and it doesn’t usually rhyme. There may be beautiful plays on the sounds of words in Hebrew, but sadly you can’t pick these up in translation. (It’s good to learn Hebrew!) If you are used to Tennyson, for example, Bible poetry feels different. The main thing is that you usually have two, or sometimes three, lines that are in parallel.
Sometimes the lines say very much the same thing:
Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers! (Psalm 37:1).
Here the second line presses home the first for emphasis.
Sometimes the lines move a story along.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither (Psalm 1:3).
You can watch the tree. First it is planted, then it fruits and doesn’t wither. The lines tell a story.
Sometimes the second line says something opposite or slightly different:
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest (Psalm 22:2).
Here the second line fills in the picture of day and night suffering, no answer, no rest.
When you read Bible poetry, try to get a feel for how the parallel lines work to build up a picture. It’s rather like looking at something through binoculars rather than a telescope; the two lines make it feel three-dimensional. (Alright, I know that for three lines you would need trinoculars and three eyes!)
Hebrew poetry is colourful but compressed
In the Psalms you often get something vivid but very brief.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters (Psalm 23:2).
It’s a picture, a vivid picture, a beautiful picture. Don’t try to read it as if it was a journalist’s description of a scene!
Hebrew poetry conveys feelings and affections
One of the great things that poetry does, even more than most prose, is help us to feel things and to want things.
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord (Psalm 84:1-2).
Read the words aloud. Remember, they are not simply telling you abstract truths. They help you want the dwelling place of God with all your heart.
How do we read the Psalms as Christians?
I am in the middle of writing three-quarters of a million words about this in an upcoming Christ-centred commentary on the Psalms, so I’m going to struggle in a short article! Let me suggest three pointers to help you.
Ask yourself what a psalm might have meant to Jesus on earth
Imagine Jesus of Nazareth in the synagogue on a sabbath day joining in the singing of a psalm. What would it have meant to him to express his faith like this? To lament in the words of this psalm; to praise the Father in this way; to express his longing for vindication and victory in this psalm, or whatever it may be? It’s a really helpful question.
There are some puzzles but again and again a psalm that doesn’t completely fit the original writer comes into focus. For example, Psalm 118 says ‘All nations surrounded me’ (Ps. 118:10). That was never true of any Israelite king, but it was completely true for Jesus who was hated by the whole ungodly world. Ask yourself what a psalm might have meant to Jesus.
Ask yourself what a psalm means for the whole church of Christ
We tend just to think about ‘God and me’ when we read the Psalms, but it’s good to think about ‘God and us’, that is God and the whole church of Christ. For example, when you read Psalm 3, the first seven and a half verses are about the King. The King is under pressure; the King prays; the King is rescued. That makes perfect sense for Jesus. Then the last line says, ‘your blessing be on your people!’ That’s where we come in! Our King is rescued and God’s blessing overflows to all the King’s people, and that’s us, the church of Christ. Ask yourself, especially when you read ‘we’, or ‘our’, or ‘us’ , what this means for the church, and often especially for the persecuted church.
Ask yourself what a psalm means for you, a man or woman in Christ
Last but not least, say or sing the psalm for yourself as someone who belongs to Jesus Christ. In him you are called to suffer and with him you are sure of final resurrection and victory. In the life of faith you will be perplexed and struggle to trust the promises. Jesus walked this way first; follow after him with honesty, sadness, and joy.
Think about Jesus singing, focus on the whole church joining in and then join in yourself. Someone has pictured it like a great choir and Jesus is the choir-leader. When we are converted we join the choir and sing the Psalms with Jesus. It’s a wonderful picture!
May God help you to enjoy Bible poetry more and more and especially to revel in the Psalms as they speak to you of Jesus. An old writer speaks of the Scriptures as the ‘swaddling bands’ of Jesus; enjoy them as they unwrap him to your soul!